Why Did Johnny Depp Lose His Libel Case In The UK, But Not In The US?
Apart from public outrage and YouTube compilations, there’s a strategic legal element to Johnny Depp’s historical outcome from the trial
Ah, the Johnny Depp defamation trial; inescapable, massively polarizing, and now finally done with. After weeks of massive international coverage, the seven-person jury largely sided with Depp, leaving behind an aftermath of burning Twitter threads and several thinkpieces.
As the final verdict sustains debate behind what might be the most viral court case in years, many voices on the internet—particularly those who aren’t fully convinced about Depp’s innocence—have revisited an older case from 2020, that didn’t quite turn out in the actor’s favor.
Here’s what happened back then, and why despite the similarities between the cases, Depp managed to win his highly-publicised case.
What Happened in London?
The Depp V. Heard trial was essentially a defamation suit filed by the former, over a Washington Post op-ed written by Heard. Depp aimed to sue his ex-wife as a result of millions lost after he was dropped or discouraged as a casting choice by film studios—Heard did not name Depp in the article but wrote that she was “a public figure representing domestic abuse.”
Meanwhile, the London case was similar in the context of Depp suing The Sun tabloid for calling him a ‘wife beater.’ While Heard was not named in the case, she did appear as a witness for The Sun, contributing to a verdict that saw the claims against Depp as ‘substantially true.’
What’s interesting here is that as far as libel laws go, several legal experts felt that Depp had a higher chance of winning a defamation case in the UK rather than the US—the exact opposite of which has just happened.
This is because of the much higher standards of libel trials for plaintiffs in the US. Instead of simply causing harm to someone’s reputation, an American defendant must be proven guilty of maliciously making a libelous statement, knowing their words to be untrue as they get published.
This essentially means that in the UK, The Sun had to prove that Depp was, in fact, a wife beater, while in the US, Depp had to prove that he was maliciously defamed by Heard. The difference in legal structure has even led to a curious phenomenon called ‘libel tourism’, where plaintiffs such as Depp aim to sue in British courts as the burden of proof on their end is considerably lower.
So… Why Did Depp Win His Case?
True, we might argue that Depp and his legal team simply believed that they had enough material to confidently prove Heard’s malice towards him, which seems to be the mainline opinion across various channels of social media. With the vast majority of evidence suggesting some pattern of abuse on both ends, Depp’s share of evidence and testimonies were agreed to bear more weight, while proof of physical abuse largely pointed towards Heard’s camp.
George Freeman, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center, thinks that ultimately, the case’s outcome was simpler than the convoluted facts suggest.
“The answer is simple,” Freeman said to The Washington Post, the same publication at the center of the original op-ed. “It was up to the jury.”
Unlike his UK trial which was presided over by a judge, the current result was passed by a panel of jurors: a set of seven Americans who essentially represent the state of Virginia. Juries are widely used in the American legal system—a democratic alternative to the largely white, 45+, male demographic of US Judges.
These individuals ultimately decided to believe evidence that a British judge did not, which in retrospect seems like an unusual outcome.
International media lawyer Mark Stephens thinks that this may have something to do with the DARVO tactic used by Depp’s team, which stands for ‘deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender’, which was played out in this trial in an almost-textbook fashion. The case started off with Heard calling Depp an abuser, and ended with the court—as well as a large part of the global audience—viewing Heard as an abuser instead.
This stands in stark contrast with the UK case, where Judge Justice Nicol specifically disbelieved that Heard was responsible for severing Depp’s finger with a vodka bottle: one of the case’s key points.
“We find that DARVO works very well with juries but almost never works with judges, who are trained to look at evidence,” Stephens said. There’s also Depp’s choice to file the case in Virginia, which has a weak anti-SLAPP statute, contrary to both parties’ home state of California. This statute essentially allows defendants to quickly dismiss a ‘meritless’ lawsuit, which Heard failed to accomplish earlier on.
Finally, there’s the fact that Johnny Depp almost unanimously won the public’s eye across the last few months —a fact massively supported by his large fanbase, and the humongous stream of pro-Depp content on the internet. While the jurors were requested to stay off the internet during the trial proceedings, they weren’t sequestered – making some form of public pressure clear to everyone in that Fairfax courtroom.
Ultimately, the jurors ruled that both parties were abusive, although Heard lost out on two of three countersuits and stands to lose $8 million in the process.
Sure, assuming the jurors voted rightly, this is indeed a big win for thousands of male abuse victims across the world. However, with a convoluted mess of uninformed opinion mongering now laid bare across the internet, perhaps we shouldn’t be celebrating all too soon.
(Featured Image Credits: ENStars)